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Imaginative jewelry designers and art merchants from the Philippines, the Pacific Islands and the shores of the Mediterranean offer a wide array of shell bracelets, necklaces and chokers. According to a study published last week in Science magazine, this industry has a tradition dating back some 100,000 years.

The stars of the article are three beads made from shells that have been common in the Mediterranean Sea for millions of years. They were there in the Middle Paleolithic Age, not long after modern man, homo sapiens, began spreading throughout the world. Two of the beads were found in Skhul Cave in the Carmel Mountains, and the third is from the site of Oued Djebbana, in Algeria.

The beads were discovered in excavations several decades ago. Skhul Cave was studied in the 1930s and the Algerian cave, the following decade. The excavating archaeologists were equipped with less sophisticated devices than the current generation is, so it was difficult for them to identify the shells as jewelry, and all the more so to date them.

That job was recently undertaken by a team of researchers from Britain and France. The researchers examined the three shells, which have been stored since the 1950s in the collections of the Natural Museums in London and Paris. The beads are made from Nassarius gibbosulus shells, which are found in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean.

Henk Mienis, who is in charge of the mollusk collection at Tel Aviv University and the national mollusk collection at Hebrew University's Department of Evolution, Systematics & Ecology, participated in the research and says it is very rare to find naturally occurring holes - from sand erosion, bites or animal drilling - in these shells.

The three shells that were examined all had similarly located holes that would have enabled them to be strung on a necklace. A microscopic analysis found signs of engraving by a sharp stone. Mienis' research colleagues used flint tools like those found at both sites to bore holes in similar shells, and found that the tools that the ancient inhabitants of the sites had were suitable for the job.

The researchers also sampled the layer of dirt adhering to the shells and conducted physical and chemical tests. The results showed the shells were used as adornments by inhabitants of the Carmel site about 100,000 years ago, and in Algeria about 90,000 years ago. These dates make the three shells the earliest known example of jewelry or ornamental accessories.

The hypothesis that the shells were used as jewelry is reinforced by the fact that the two sites are quite far from the coast. Skhul cave is about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the sea, while the Algerian site is close to 200 kilometers from the beach. This has led researchers to conclude that the shells did not reach the sites incidentally, but were rather brought there on purpose, to be used as jewelry.

Two years ago other members of the research team published an article in which they reported finding the oldest jewelry in the world, in the form of shell beads from South Africa. However, those beads are 25,000 years younger than the three under discussion.

Prof. Daniel Kaufman, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, says the current findings alter beliefs on the level of early man's cultural development.

"The findings from Skhul Cave are from 90,000-100,000 years ago," says Kaufman. "Decorative items are not usually found at sites from this period. In Europe such items started to appear at sites from much later - 30,000-40,000 years ago."

Excavations at those European sites yielded not only jewelry, but also wall paintings and musical instruments. These findings led anthropologists to surmise that the symbols, culture and religion began in Europe around the same time, with the arrival of modern man to that region. Mienis says, however, that the latest findings show that the use of symbols began much earlier, and not necessarily in Europe. This system evolved slowly, leading to the eventual development of luxury boutiques and custom designers.